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IPPR, Higher Education and the Matthew Principle

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IPPR, Higher Education and the Matthew Principle

Comment by:
Campaign for the Public University &
Council for the Defence of British Universities

The ‘centre-left’ Think Tank has released a report, A Critical Path: Securing the Future of Higher Education in England, by its Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

The Report seems designed to forestall specific cuts to higher education in the current Government review of spending from April 2015. Given that the 80% cut to the teaching budget was more than recouped by higher fees, there are clearly worries in the sector that HE will be targeted for cuts that do bite, especially cuts to the science budget (since it is not clear how cuts could otherwise be made to what teaching funding remains since that is designed for strategically important subjects). The Report argues that HE should take its share of financial austerity.

However, the Commission recommends the science budget not be cut. They do, however, recommend concentration and selectivity within it, in line with the Russell Group’s relentlessly promoted views about protecting the ‘Jewels in the crown’. It also proposes freezing the remaining teaching grant and maintaining the £9000 fee cap until 2017/18, implying a real-term cut in income. It seeks changes to UKBA rules on overseas students so that recruitment can continue to provide a compensatory growth in income from those universities best placed to benefit.

It also proposes that a student ‘premium’ of £1000 be paid to students from low participation areas, or who have received free school meals, to recognise extra costs of teaching and recruitment. At the same time, it suggests that those universities which have a small core (under the new core and margin system) be able to use ‘contextual’ data to recruit such students with below ABB+, without this being counted against their core numbers. At the same time, it recommends that funding should be shifted from student bursaries and fee waivers and into outreach programmes. It is clear that the Report favours selective universities like the Russell Group as a kind of English ‘ivy league’.

So far, nothing surprising. The sting comes in its address of student numbers and the impact of the new funding arrangements on future government debt. The Commission recognises the future unsustainability of the current student loan system and that it has meant a restriction in student numbers beyond what the Browne Review had proposed, with considerable untapped demand for places (especially, in the light of current levels of youth unemployment). The Commission estimates that around 40% of student debt will not be paid back.

It is not clear why the Commission postpones further discussion of more progressive ideas, such as a reduction in the level of fees and restoration of direct funding by grant, as well as various progressive solutions such as a graduate tax or higher repayments for those who graduate to higher earning jobs, as recently argued by Million+ and London Economics.

Instead, as an immediate measure, the Commission suggests that student places at full-cost courses should remain restricted, but a new category of low cost, vocational courses should be created for live-at-home and part-time students. Here the fee would be £5000, but there would be no loans for maintenance. These places would be allowed to expand. It is clear that this expansion is intended to be delivered by for-profit providers, many operating through FE. They call this ‘reviving’ the idea of the polytechnic, but it creates a lower status route simply by virtue of the lower investment in its students.

There is a crisis in part-time education which has seen a 40% fall in applications, but this is far from being the answer. Even at £5000, the fee will be higher than it was before the Government’s reforms. Moreover, the ‘rhetoric’ justifying the introduction of higher fees was that the cost to students was not upfront and only kicked in once a graduate earned £21,000, so it was not straightforwardly in a student’s interest to sign up to low cost education.

What is a disincentive to studying is the very cost of maintenance that does not have to be paid up front and is there even for live-at-home students. Just as this pool of prospective students had the Educational Maintenance Allowance removed from them, making it more difficult to continue in post-16 education, so the Commission is now proposing removing their access to maintenance loans for higher education.

In fact, the Commission’s recommendation for the future that more progressive ways of financing the system be discussed is somewhat disingenuous in the light of the structural changes likely to be embedded were their immediate solution to the ‘numbers’ question adopted. Indeed, by accepting the current realities of a politics of ‘austerity’, they fail to defend an inclusive public interest in higher education and instead encourage the further fragmentation of the system in pursuit of sectional interests.

Once again, ‘selective’ universities are to be protected, while those universities that do the heavy-lifting on widening participation are put under pressure, and the entry of for-profit providers is facilitated. Higher education as a positional good is protected and the stratification of opportunities and public investment in those opportunities further entrenched.

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